Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Embracing Data Transparency: the political football of science in the arena of environmental regulation

It's been quite a year for Captain Science. Like their super hero counterpart, Captain America, "Science" has emerged from a spotty dossier to become a champion of democracy and enlightenment ideal of rational government. Once again, we are told to 'trust data,' an absurd idea to any actual scientist.

This renewed baptism by political storm has "Science" emerging bright and shining, phoenix like, from the ashes of the 'science wars.' During that time "Science" was made to productively grapple with post-modern critiques of method as truth and science as progress (e.g. Paul Feyerabend, Donna Haraway), analysis of the social construction and practice of science (e.g. Thomas Kuhn, Bruno Latour, Sheila Jasanoff), and the realization that the ideals of a unified "Science" requires not only restructuring the mundane practices of legions of scientists, but also erasing fundamental differences in the assumptions, world views, and ontologies of a diverse set of scientific practices (Nancy Cartwright).

Thus it seems the 'science wars' have finally been brought to a popular close with the wholesale assault on "Science" as an Idea, and as an ideological tool for ordering society, which had been previously restricted to attacking individual scientists and disciplines found threatening to the status quo (e.g. Lamar Smith's calculated attacks on the NSF to restrict the scope of research and create a culture of fear and scarcity).

And yet, are we really witnessing an assault on "Science"? Or are we still thick in the normal weeds of the long running conflict over the inherently political work performed by different branches of science?

For example, the assault on the administrative state has only given greater power and license to the mundane practice of science in certain disciplines, say oil and gas exploration and manufacturing, which is also certainly not new (see Edward Woodhouse's work on the development of the petrochemical industry which quashed nascent attempts at green manufacturing in the USA).

And now we have the news that Scott Pruitt wants to restrict science considered in rule writing at the EPA to that which has its data publicly available, which on the surface sounds commendable, but in the weeds would appear to exclude a huge number of public health and epidemiology studies based off of confidential information. Those studies generally fall under Institutional Review Board requirements to protect participant confidentiality, and thus, making the raw data behind them would in fact be illegal.

And there is something profoundly uncomfortable to any scholar of "Science" in the way the battle lines are being drawn over this latest initiative. I hate to say it but Pruitt has won the rhetorical high ground on the transparency and reproducibility of science in regulation; all the backlash he receives continues to feed the broader narrative of the Trump administration as standing up to the coddled, privileged, and seemingly unassailable technocratic elite long running Washington.

Now, many of us know that that narrative is deeply flawed for many reasons, not least because Washington has long been infested with industry lobbyists, lawyers, and scientists for hire who have always been deeply involved in both the creation of the regulatory state and its selective repeal (the Underground Injection Control exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act granted to the hydraulic fracking industry as one notable example, but there continue to be thousands of unregulated and untested chemicals produced directly and indirectly by the US chemical industry). If there is to be transparency and accountability at the EPA, where is the publicly available science that says those chemicals are safe? This debate is not about science, it is about the structure of environmental governance and where science fits.

Pruitt's hypocrisy in taking publicly funded scientists off of review panels, while allowing those working for industry to continue to serve should be the leverage point in reframing this issue.

As scientists we cannot rely on the unassailable nature of Captain Science, his shield is not big enough to protect us from the tidal wave of public opinion and warranted outrage against the undemocratic production and utilization of knowledge which has long been the norm in modern bureaucratic nation states (James Scott).

Instead, we should be embracing calls for transparency and reproducibility, and accelerating the trend of accountability in scientific agencies. Such a tactic reverses the battle lines, and will confuse the enemy, and if performed well, can increase the scope of reform to include the entire processes by which chemical manufacturers and other toxic industries must be regulated and their activities reviewed.

Again, it's obvious that Pruitt doesn't actually care about transparency. The administration's agenda has always been regulatory rollback and capture - promoting certain science based industries while quashing scientific practice related to studying questions of the public good, or environmental health, and are certainly not new.

Embracing transparency could entail embracing the call for transparency in science used for rule making in all fronts, including all processes of certifying potentially hazardous chemicals.

We could call for all publicly funded science used in rule making or regulatory processes to be subject to public review, as well as all raw data on monitoring of regulated entities to be available for public review (instead of annual totals like in the current databases for toxic releases by permitted manufacturers). Such a call would also encompass privately and industry funded research in private labs for food and safety drug trials, as well as chemical safety trials, including trials that did not meet regulatory requirements. At the

For concerns about confidential data, there have long been ways of reporting public and environmental health data in ways that do not compromise confidentiality, or violate IRB rules - such as masking at the census block group or tract level.

Making that data more publicly available could be used strategically to highlight the vast disparities in toxic risk experienced by certain communities, and broaden public engagement with those issues.

We cannot afford to allow this administration to strategically position itself as the defender of accountability and transparency, and yet the rhetorical tools being rolled out against the EPA decision largely fall along technical lines, what one could call the 'trust' us defense. The problem is that Trump/Pruitt's constituencies do not 'trust' the EPA, or the Washington Political Establishment, or what they see as the Liberal Elite, or scientists, not because of the reliability or veracity of their methods, but because of their social and rhetorical positions and relationship with the state.

"Science" as an institution must mature, embrace it's conflicted social position, and engaged directly with its inherent politics in an explicit manner. Many scientists raised on the petri dish of objectivity will likely find this shift profoundly uncomfortable, and not without reason; the supposed social and political detachment of science, and the academy, is constantly being renegotiated to maintain its privileged social position.

But as Bruno Latour told us, once the mask of objectivity had been lifted, there is no going back, though we can move on from the endless critique of science as Truth, to the use of science to address matters of 'concern.'

Conservatives appear just as concerned about issues of purity and health as their Liberal counterparts, they just have a different framework for balancing risk, economic reward, and individual responsibility. Most environmental inequalities fall more along lines of race and class and their partisan corollaries rather than partisan politics per se.

In reality, environmental regulations continue to underpin country level economic competitiveness, adding requirements to industries that they operate in a socially and environmentally responsible way is better for the overall economy, and certainly not worse. The often cited plant closures due to environmental regulations around the US also coincide with increasing globalization and offshoring of US manufacturing.

That is the type of rhetoric we need to build off of for a transformative 21st century environmentalism that has justice at its core. We need to embed not only principles of 'sound science'  but take the high ground on transparency and accountability in government.

The problem then with Pruitt's proposal, is not that it demands transparency, but that it is  duplicitous, and seeks to hide risk. In response, we should push for greater transparency and accountability in all arenas of toxic risk regulation, including the private sector. Such a move will likely catch them off guard and even if unsuccessful, will reveal the hypocrisy in their rhetorical claims, depriving them of rhetorical ammunition.

Lifting the veil on how the science based agencies operate may be uncomfortable to their long time operatives, but if embraced judiciously and applied equally, will go a long way in restoring faith in the power (and limitations) of science informing environmental governance.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Post-Post Modernity knocks: ecological modernization and the dream of unified progress

Appeals to modernity, and more specifically, to the need for ecological modernization, fall flat upon the ears of millenials, intellectuals and policy thinkers of the contemporary age. For one, we are all too aware of the passing of the post-modern moment, never mind the gilded age of so called modernity which gave the world centralized technocratic planning regimes and cities built for cars of the 1950s. And perhaps more importantly, we are children of the conflicted era whereby the clash of civilizations was pronounced dead and history over, only to be plunged into prolonged economic and political crisis through the failure of the post-industrial global financial system to generate lasting and equitable prosperity, and the resurgence of traditional identities and values vis-a-vis the post colonial / neo-imperialistic projects of European (yes, Russia is a European country, and an Asian one, know your geography) nations in the Middle East. The post-post modern condition rejects a unified notion of progress, and instead explores the diversity of subjective interpretations of both material and metaphysical transformations of the human condition.

And yet, triumphalist paeans to the virtues of capitalism abound. One recent economist article extolls the virtues of visionary billionaires investing in lofty techno-scientific projects which will seemingly lift the rest of humanity out of the inequity they themselves have helped create. The fact that Schumpeter’s piece draws upon examples from mercantile economies to support an explicitly pro-capitalist agenda lays bare the contradictions of the ‘modernizing’ project. There is more in common between the mercantile empires of old and the techno-entrepreneurial class of today than perhaps should make us comfortable. 

Rather than attempting to simultaneously naturalize wealth inequality and claim triumphalism for modern techno-capitalism, we can lay bare the basic dynamics of social power run amuck. Wealth and capitalism are not synonymous, and as Latour tells us in We have never been modern, the civilizing dream of an end to history is certainly not a new idea. We would be better served by a nuanced discussion of the various social dynamics at play. If there is any unifying characteristic to the contemporary world it lies in the multitude of experiential realities and perspectives brought into increasing contact, collaboration and yes conflict. 

Attempting to wash away this vibrancy with an appeal to the slick plate glass of the shining ecologically modern city on the hill, will likely continue to disenfranchise and destroy the human cultural vibrancy necessary for ecological intimacy, place based knowledge, and wisdom. While technology, and the finance of innovation and entrepreneurship, certainly have some social role to play in solving the various intertwined social, environmental and technological ills we face today, we would be wise to not let the imaginary steamroller of a unified notion of progress flatten our world.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Blackstone: the Path to Providence

Next time I’ll take the canal I thought, as our camera bearer dried himself from a plunge sustained while navigating a particularly hairy logjam. The minor mishap was amplified by the disappearance of our disposable camera in the mail on its way to development. It may be better for the future careers of all those involved that few records exist besides this subjective account. By the time the trip was over, we had all mastered the J stroke and aerodynamic reach, and moreover, the tortuous and urban Blackstone, cradle of the industrial revolution in North America, and for our purposes, the path to Providence.

Our small band had gathered under the common impetus to travel by water, to canoe in an epic way, to soak up the last of the summer sun. I had planned the trip months before, shortly after completing the Storrs to New London canoe route with two friends of mine, both of which bailed on this trip at the last minute. For the better I supposed at the time, as it meant that we would only need two boats. I had talked Steve and Christian into the trip while I was still in central America, and Mark was a last minute addition picked up at an Outing Club meeting the Wednesday before labor day. In an overly optimistic bout, I gave us two days to make the 40 or so miles connecting the two cities, a miscalculation that was to set the pace for what seemed like eternity.

The day was balmy, a gorgeous Labor Day, Skies blue, weather, soccer tournament perfect. We didn’t even know it could be done, but the nagging feeling of passing the sign for Blackstone River National Heritage Corridor off of I-91 just south and east of Worcester too many times had culminated in this plan. Last-minute rearrangements in crew left us with 4 hardy souls, 2 boats and 3 small cars.

The Heritage Corridor is not only home to the river of its namesake, but also the Historic Blackstone Canal, which had a short functioning life between 1827 and 1848. The canal boosted the predominantly agrarian society of Central Massachusetts into a mercantile economy, before it was made redundant by a competing rail line to Boston. Far before it had been graced with the likes of Adam Sandler’s tollbooth Willie or the Polar Soda Co, pr WPI, Worcester was an industrial powerhouse, linked to sea by the canal. To us, the river promised adventure, just as it had promised all those enterprising Yankees wealth, water power, and later, sewage disposal. The question was; what had it become?

Having arranged for a 9.30 Sunday morning meeting time at the ole’ outing club shed over on Horsebarn hill, Christian, Mark, Steve, and I packed up our boats and drybags, departing in three cars towards our end point at Pierce Stadium in East Providence. About an hour later that morning’s hasty breakfast of a wild gathered mushroom and egg sandwich was unpleasantly pounding on my temples in a most immediate way. A mounting nausea and headache made me think back to the details of the consumed mushroom, and I realized that the fungus I had eaten was in fact not the famed chicken of the forest; the offending mycelium I had ingested, while bright yellowish orange with concentric rings of darkened pigment, sported gills, and not pores. Retching on a road adjoining Rt. 6 I was triply humiliated as Steve was apparently afflicted in a similar, though less severe way. Post purge (of what turned out to be a Jack-o-Lantern mushroom - a common beginners mistake), I felt marginally relieved as Steve grew more concerned.

Passing through Providence, the feeling returned, and it was with urgency that I hunted for a parking spot in the lots surrounding Pierce memorial stadium, our planned car drop. Not being able to hold it, I pulled a rolling vomit through the open door, to the horror of a mother and her two baseball uniformed children on their way to Little League. Christ! what a sight I thought, the outing club canoe on my roof, vomiting in the parking lot, 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning. Stay away from the strong drink wee laddies, it will make a devil and a wretch of you indeed.

Steve managed to void the contents of his stomach more discreetly than I did, and with C’s car tucked in an inconspicuous corner of the lot, we made our way North, onto State Rt. 146, following the out of sight river to Worcester. None of us were sure where the river started, Google earth’s resolution of the urbanscape was too poor to make out the size of the stream before it hit Millbury, and the dry nature of the last few weeks (even after a diluvian summer), meant that the head stream we had picked out, emerging from Coes Reservoir in Worcester was about 6 inches deep, very greenish, full of beer cans and shopping carts. Though our quest was not completely fruitless, as we had found the source of our river, we needed at least enough depth to drop in if we were to start the journey. We did our best to follow the river out of town through the urban maze, a task made difficult by the stream often being funneled under streets and highways. We ended up on the other side of the highway, having missed the other potential dropping in point of middle river park, which ended up being a good thing, as when we stopped by the Blackstone Hertigate Canal museum (a work in progress) we were greeted by a channeled mill dam with no portage route. Thus frustrated yet relieved, we headed into Millbury to look for a better launch site. At a convenience store where we stopped for supplies, I approached an older looking river rat type and asked him about launch sites. Taken aback by our plan to go to Providence, his first remark was on how many dams there were in between Millbury and Providence. He scratched his head for a while when I asked him how many total there were, and he eventually put the number at 6 or 7, but he wasn’t really sure, he’d spent his whole life fishing that river, but had never put a boat in it to go all the way down.

I got the feeling that his was a common story; that nobody since before the time of the water wheel had been able to make this paddle straight shot. 

I got the feeling that his was a common story; that nobody since before the time of the water wheel had been able to make this paddle straight shot. In our quest for longer paddles in Southern New England however, we are not alone. In his book Uncommon Carriers, John McPhee devotes 8 pages or so to retracing the canoe voyage of Thoreau and his brother documented in Five Days on the Merrimack and Concord Rivers. Ninety percent philosophical tangent and ten percent narrative, the journey in Five Days started Aug 31st, 1839, and traversed 55 water miles from Concord MA to Hookset NH, three years before the Blackstone canal was closed, and twenty years after the Eerie canal was finished. It was a time of transition, the railroad was coming, as Thoreau occasionally lamented in Walden, but he could not have foreseen the age of the automobile. Thoreau didn’t begin writing Five Days until 1845, a possible explanation for his paucity of narrative, and we do know he took his time in traveling as well, as did McPhee, and enjoyed the river for what it was. Perhaps we should’ve followed their lead, but our desire to be responsible students wouldn’t allow it. We didn’t have the same leisure as Thoreau did, who took his water from the river and had completed his ‘education’ years before. Neither did we have portage support from a spouse in a Minivan as McPhee did, but what we lacked in time and logistical support, we made up in pure verve and enthusiasm.

Supplied with beer and information we made our way to the launch site just south of Millbury, below the second Millbury dam. All was well, the sun shone and the river sparkled, albeit slightly sullied, and we pushed off. With us we carried two tents and stoves, sleeping kit for 4, food for one night, lunch for two days and a breakfast, a water filter and assorted personal items. The first dam of our quest was eventful, a ragged broken weir followed by an intact 6 ft dam (#1) immediately followed by crumbling 4 ft dam adjacent to a broken down mill (#2). This hazardous obstacle, required a partial portage, and a bit of canoe gymnastics to shoot the lower rapids stuffed with broken concrete and rebar, and finally a pause to reload.

After this brief bit of excitement, we pleasantly paddled several miles among farms and a few warehouses. Before long we came into the Blackstone canal national heritage site, a lovely expanse of marsh dotted with small humps of trees. Fall raged in the yellowing grass. The sun was setting and we were eyeing small islands as camp sites as one bank darkened and the other was ablaze in the golden light. A lone kayaker paddling upstream pointed us to a small island to camp, just out of sight around the river bend. He’d never done it, but had always thought that it would be a nice spot to spend the night. Darkness, a dam and uncertainty being the only things to keep pushing towards, we set up on narrow shelf bounded by a few rocks, a point which seemed like a former bridge, and a space big enough for two tents (upon flattening some poison ivy), with a comfortable spot for a small fire and cooking place among the boulders. We ate well, drank deep and slept soundly.

           The next morning broke hazy, but in the mist there was enough warmth to anticipate a brilliant blue sky. And so it was, as we packed up, our tents drying and breakfast cooking, the sky began to break above us, and as we pushed off, around 9.30, the fog lifted, the sky bright and sunny. The former holding pond for the Blackstone Canal was about a foot deep in most places, the silt sprouting water lilies, bull rushes, and cattails in abundance. We passed under a bridge and slid our boats over a sloped concrete dam (#3), adjacent to the canal, plopping semi awkwardly over the lip and back into the stream. We opted to take the river, the canal overgrown and its continuity uncertain.

A few families milled about, some on bicycles, eyeing us and our large kit, but no one asked us who we were or where we were going. Leaving them behind we entered the quiet winding wilds of southern Mass, the heart of the Blackstone valley. The windy stretch of wood was to be some of the last tree dominated landscape we passed through. The quiet curves and poorly marked meanders muted the sound of distant traffic, an otherwise persistent phenomena of southern New England. The river was intensely braided, and wound its way through the trunks of trees, sometimes little more than a canoe wide before meeting up with a piece of itself and broadening out. It was frequently shallow, and we had to walk often, if we were lucky, we let the canoe drift as we made our way over the slippery rounded rocks. A few logs crossed our path, and walking through ankle deep water made me wonder about where the canal went and what sort of shape it was in; it was madness what we were doing, walking among the slippery round rocks for a few hundred feet at a time, sitting in the canoe for a few hundred, and repeating the process. The bump and scrape as a friend calls it, the bane of any attempt at mileage. And it was only 10 in the morning.

And yet, it was with some displeasure that we left the wooded landscape and entered the realm of former mill town and suburban farm country. Out of the meanders, the river was moving pretty good, and we started to make up for lost time. We crossed the Algonquin gas pipeline (a holding of the energy giant Spectra Energy) that goes from Boston, through Storrs to New Jersey, connecting to the Texas Eastern natural gas pipeline running all the way to the Gulf, and the Northeast Maritime pipeline which supplies northern New England. As far as connections go, its unexceptional, some low key yellow markers warning of a hazard, and a 80 foot wide cleared path through the woods on either side. The river, once the central source of energy for manufacturing in the region, had ceded to the high tension lines and Texan gas.

The last town in Massachusetts, about 20 miles south by southeast of Worcester, Blackstone, sprawls into Rhode Island, the river crossing the state line three times before decidedly turning south. There we had our first bona fide portage around the dam (#4) at the head of the Blackstone gorge, a recently created white water park. We stopped for lunch, and watched families watching us as we rested our shoulders and dried out. The white water park was running low, but still fun to navigate through, even though a few sections required wet knee deep exits to cross rock berms. As we cleared the park, large buildings rose to our left, and the river became progressively funkier, cloudy, greenish brown with slightly scummy surface. A few mallards were about as we passed a large structure from which the other third or so of the Blackstone poured out of three eight foot high concrete pipes. Not even a mile down, we hit a low dam, about 4 ft high (#5), and we were able to lift and slide the canoes over the few inches of water pouring over its lip, easier than carrying all our gear, but no easy feat in the rushing water. The mixed blessing of the deeps before dams, is the shallow water on the other side. A bit further on, we passed a waterside park, where there was some sort of Labor Day fest going on, partially meeting our expectations of encountering revelers along the banks. Feeling a need to push on, we didn’t stop, but enjoyed the music, allowing it to push us into Woonsocket and our first urban portage (dam #6).

           By this time it was more than obvious that the river was not meant for this sort of journey, there were no portage trails anywhere, barely any access to the river at all, and the dam at Woonsocket Falls was the worst example so far. We ended up hauling our gear up a rip rap embankment and over a fence. Rip rap is the perfect engineers solution to bank stabilization, but otherwise an abomination. Imagine climbing up sharp rocks, about head sized, some of them shifting while you haul a 80 lb canoe up and over a 4 ft high chainlink fence at the top of the slope. In Woonsocket, the cars outnumbered the people by about 500 to 1, though one friendly soul did wander over to talk to us as we got ready to cross Main Street, pass down a long staircase and plop back in the water. In northern Maine, portages are to get from river to river, pond to pond, or to get around rapids, here, we use the crosswalk.

          The man who wandered over turned out to be a canoe salesman, and he liked our boats. The mad river explorer 16, triple tough, weighing 82 lbs and advertised as a multipurpose, durable and seaworthy boat, more or less perfect for our purposes. “A good boat” he says, though I get the feeling he’d never taken it on a trip like this. Some guys are renovating a restaurant across the street, and they guide us down the steps, a cook on a cigarette break tells us that he’d “shure as hell’d be rather doing that than this.” It’s still early in the day, and we agree heartily. We scoot around rocks, around a river island, skirt the historic district, and keep paddling down. Not a mile down, we hit a broken dam (#7) that we can navigate through, some swift running rapids for a change, getting the juices flowing as we get back into the flow of the river. Drinking the last of our Landsharks we happen upon a wide smooth current stretch of river where we broke into a race for fun, open water competition with no rules. Our paddling technique had advanced considerably since the outset, and we were neck and neck, the race degenerated into an endurance contest, replete with boat pulling and other foolishness, as is the case with all good contests. The sun was bright, as we passed first one waste treatment plant, and then some large dome shaped buildings each with their own suspicious effluent pipes passing some watery substance into the river. 

           A few miles down the water appeared clear again, the sun hot on my skin I stripped down to my skivvies, prayed to the EPA and flipped into the water. Bliss; a hot day, the golden sun, a cool river to plunge into.

Another mile down and we hit the Manville dam (#8). And who was there to greet us on the boat launch but the men of Manville, amidst a case of empties and in the full swing of a Labor Day celebration. They couldn’t believe that we were paddling to Providence, and expressed even more incredulity that I had gone swimming in their river. As children of the 70s, they refused to eat fish from the water, much less do anything but look it, convinced it would cause permanent genetic deformities in themselves and their offspring. The aged dome shaped buildings we had passed turned out to be the “poop factory.” Advising us on the location of the closest and cheapest (not the same) liquor stores, we chatted with these characters about bygone days. They were all zonked on their empties and a potent strain of new England swamp homegrown, thouroughly amused by our crazy quest to brave the Blackstone. Re-supplied a case of Pilsener Urquell (fortified water from the Czech Republic) and a few bags of chips and assorted candy bars, we dove into our portage.

             The men of Manville’s advice was all car based, and sucked for foot bound paddlers. To get around Manville Dam, We ended up scaling a fence with our canoes and gear to get on the bike path, repeating the process to work our way down a rocky underpass, where we re-entered the shallow stream, avoiding scum covered rocks as much as we could. Heads abuzz, we plowed down river with the knowledge that the sun was setting and we had some 14 odd miles and 5 or 6 more dams to traverse. We launched from underneath the overpass, shopping carts and graffiti our only onlookers. Dusk was just approaching, the Labor Day bike path travelers thinning out into Subarus headed for home, dinner, or the party. We put our backs into our living and headed into the unknown.

On the larger river, 9 hours from when we started paddling, delirium began to take us. Darkness grew as we went into the Blackstone National Forest before hitting another small dam in Albion (#9), one I barely remember as our portages became automatic, a quick hauling out of the bags, flipping the canoe upon our shoulders, finding a way around the dam and on.

We paddled down alongside the Blackstone river bikeway, the east coast greenway, underneath the mighty pillars of I-295 and onto the Blackstone River Reservoir, around the reservoir dam (#10 I think) and through Ashton. Here we’re surrounded more by conservation areas and forests than anything else, and we are cruising, the river completely rock free for once, and night fast approaching. Past the Maria St. conservation Area, Thibadeau Farms, Lincoln Gardens bits of dark green bank in the dusk. We push onwards. It’s starting to get really dark now, the water grays, the surrounding trees gray, the sky darkens as we hit a line of floats warning of danger. We pull ashore to investigate, a pedestrian bridge atop several colums, narrow arches between them, fronted by a broken weir. Potentially lethal. We’re sick of portaging, we decide to thread the needle. Near disaster strikes in a collision in one of the bridge columns, the current is treacherous for an un-experienced bowman, we muscle our way through nonetheless, into broad water.

Night falls. It is sheer insanity that pushes us on now. The insanity of dams, the insanity of tomorrow’s AM classes. The moon has risen, and is showing us the rocks amidst the reflective water. It is peaceful. The trees are silent, the water murmurs underneath, insects chirp and wonder at our passing, we leave behind nothing but the eddies of our paddles, a thin trail in the water that quickly disappears among the riffles. Left right, left right, right right, left, we steer among the rocks that become fewer and farther between. The river is big now, the current smooth and strong, but we’ve still got 12 miles to go. We’re burning now, chewing willow twigs for the ache in our shoulders in backs, burning under bridges, past forests, bridges, roads, darkness, the expanse of Londsdale marsh, valley marsh, green places left green by inutility, an homage to Lao Tzu, or a different form of utility, an homage to Pinchot, pioneer statesman of the national park system, urban planning, green corridors, flood protection, nationalism. We meet a large fork in the river, to the right we are beginning to see the glow of a major city, but the current seems to pull to the left. Everyone is exhausted, and a quick break seems in order as we float at the crossroads deliberating. Our map is practically useless, and so we investigate the seemingly more direct route. It quickly becomes apparent that the right fork is a big flatwater, the pond in Valley Marsh, and so we turn around and head down river again.

It is night, 10.00 pm, as we pull into Valley falls, just north of Central Falls, and get out at a private dock for river tours, the big many-seated tourist boats sleeping alongside us. We’re out and wandering the town, looking for a way around the dam (#11), looking for food, ravenous. A pack of hoodlums eyes us warily, we look half wild, as we ask them for the whereabouts of a bar, anywhere the kitchen might be open. A Portugese man is our savior as he whips up hamburgers and we drink white Russians. It is Mark’s introduction to the underbelly of New England, as he makes friends with a drunken man a few many past too many, who regales him with exploits of jail and joblessness. They tell us we’re not far but they think we’re crazy for canoeing on. The bad news, there are a few more dams to go, two or three, nobody knows for sure. We head back to the boats, tied up next to the valley falls tour boat, a large flat bottomed river cruiser that looks like it can seat 40 or 50, and maybe serve them lunch. We haul them out, cross the street and make our way through the Valley Falls Heritage riverside park where at a pebble beach we can slide back into the black river.

We are on our way again, happy at last, full bellied moving fast \, until not even a mile later we hit the Central Falls Mills historic district (#12). We curse the dam and slog through the knee deep mud adjacent to the new condos in the refurbished mill building. A parking lot portage leads us through some recent landscaping and over a jumble of old mill race stones, big blocks of granite strewn haphazardly at the rivers edge. The water now is channeled, straight and banked on both sides by tall granite blocks, rushing by the offices of Representative Patrick Kennedy. Its semi urban all the way down, 20 ft of wall above us sometimes before the water broadens again and we have to get out at the Old Slater Mill Dam (lucky # 13), the top dam of Pawtucket falls, a good 40 foot drop from Sam Slater’s mill to the river below.

This is the last obstacle to Providence; one of the biggest dams in southern new England, and the cradle of the Industrial Revolution in America. Built in 1793 using designs gleaned from British textile factories, Slater’s mill harnessed this same river to twist cotton thread, only to evolve into a complex that made everything from tools to cardboard and bicycles. Slater’s Mill was the seed of industrial revolution in agrarian New England, and arguably, the rest of the nation. On our own voyage to redeem a longer history, we must scramble up boulders over a fence, and through a park, carrying our canoes a little over a half mile through the heart of Pawtucket at 1 in the morning. The city is almost asleep, one or two cars pass, but nobody seems about.

It’s the end of the Blackstone, but it’s not the end of the journey. Below the falls, the river becomes the tidal Seekonk River. We’re looking for a place to put in, but its all rock walls through Pawtucket, fortunately, there’s a lone fisherman with his line over the retaining wall fishing the inky blackness below who tells us about a boat ramp farther down the road, right next to I-95, New England’s thruway.

Set up again at the boat launch, we are homefree, 5 miles of flat water on the outgoing tide to bold point in East Providence, deliverance is around the corner. Providence is a glow off to the right, marking the sky sodium yellow and white, the persistent orange sky of modern night. The river is still and smooth, just barely touched by salt, the night is warm and the water cool as we dip our paddles and push off. The end of the paddle is anticlimactic, It’s 2 am as we pull into the boat launch at Bold point, the lights of RI’s biggest city reflecting off the water, looking other-wordly in our late night delirium. We still have 45 miles to drive back up to Millbury to pick up our cars and return to the canoes to take them home, the downside of small automobiles. Steve and I are to return for the canoes, and by the time we are all set to return to Storrs, dawn is approaching. Its 4 in the morning as we head out of Providence, we stop for coffee in an early morning spot, and then again on Rt. 6 in CT for a quick diner breakfast. It’ll be 7 by the time we pull into the outing club shed, 7:30 by the time Steve is off to take a shower and hit his 8 Am nursing practical. My reputation as a leader of such expeditions may be dinged, by the poisonous mushroom, the midnight hysteria and the eventual discovery of Mark’s partially collapsed lung (sustained while cliff diving a week prior), but we’ve all emerged stronger paddlers, hopefully better people; more resilient and aware of ourselves and the state of our rivers. The Blackstone may never return to it’s pre-industrial form, or its pre-dam fish populations, which included the anadromous Atlantic salmon, alewives (river herring), wild trout, sturgeon, eels, shad, and many other fish rarely seen today. We used to pull our living from the river, and it is still there, flowing with and against the forces of humanity, and it may yet regain its purity, but not without another revolution.

Some would say that this journey was atavistic in scope, a throwback to times when the peoples of this place traveled by foot or by boat. You could say that people were of limited means, or you could say that they were possessed of a less limited time. When the longest portage from the Great State of Maine to Puget sound in Washington Territory is 9 miles over the continental divide, its pretty amazing how much land is open to anybody possessed of a small boat and the skill to use it. In an era when the automobile and the asphalt river of the road has replaced man power in moving us about, it is interesting how these areas fall into neglect. Moreover, what killed the Blackstone Canal was not the automobile, it was the Boston Worcester railway and regional economic politics. We’ve entered a new era now, but we have yet to regain a connection to our rivers. We are a rich people, if you measure wealth by excess, or by waste, as we seem to do in this country, then the river is a telling sign of the neglect of natural capital. These are the veins of the earth, they are our veins, the water that flows through them is the same as the water that flows through our municipal taps, through our faucets and into our bodies. Why then would we have let them run filthy?

What would we have the river be then? Could we get rid of every below spec septic system in the valley? Disconnect the storm water system from the rivers, rip up the below ground concrete maze that funnels parking lots, roofs, dumpster slop, suburban tru-green lawns, dry cleaners, soaps, laundry detergents and road slicks into the river? Replace it all with drainage swales and retaining ponds, wetlands and woodchips? Could we farm without the river taking our excess fertilizer, pesticide, fungicide, insecticide, and eroded land to the sea? Keep the winter road sand and salt from clogging up and killing our small streams and wetlands? Could we take out all the old decrepit dams, and top the larger ones dams with fish ladders and canoe slides, five, six foot wide slaloms with a steady flow letting life work its way uphill, and us down? What would it take to replace a world of tar and pavement with green roofs, backyard gardens, fruit trees, maintained timber grounds and maple stands, nuts and game aplenty? Can we reassimilate our deep New England past, of a land that flows and thrums with the seasons and the sun, the cod larger than a man, the lobster likewise, though despised as a foodstuff suitable only to make the corn grow sweet and the squash thick and strong? What will it take to merge this deep ecological past with the industrial intermediate with the informational present, the consciousness that turns sand into a microchip, a canoe journey into a window on the world?

         Would I do it again? I don’t know, the Quinnebaug to the west is nicer and canoe friendly, and will be the next southern New England odyssey. The Farmington river is also more boat friendly and more exciting, and we’ve already taken the Fenton through to the Thames from Storrs to New London. For a less intense journey I would opt to take a few more days, explore along the river, get in deep, meet some locals like the kayaker we met at the head of the Blackstone canal, maybe even try more of the canal. One thing is for sure; in the course of our 40 mile trip we crossed 13 dams, each of which was a process to get over, only 1 of which had anything resembling a portage route. On a similar trip down the Fenton, Natchaug, Quinebaug, Shetucket to Thames route, we crossed 6 dams, only 1 of which didn’t have clear access to the water, and that route was much cleaner. Part sociological study, part delirium, our trip was successful in the sense that it’s hard to feel more alive than when committed to a line with no escape. For more pristine paddles, there’s always northern New England, but nowhere in the Northeast is the rise of industrialism and its environmental consequences, both physically and in attitude to the landscape, as apparent as it is in southern New England. From the industrial nightmare we may be delivered, but there may be a few stones to get around on the path to Providence.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Danish Views in the Island Kingdom

Jan Gehl’s lecture at RIBA on Tuesday Night laid clear some of the persistent issues with the lunacy of cycling with London. While the city certainly has progressed on many fronts, there is a noticeable paucity if cycling infrastructure when compared to Copenhangen, Amsterdam or even Boulder, Colorado. Gehl’s main message, as I could see it, was that cities should be designed for people, by people. This refreshing burst of energy comes exactly at a time when the engines of economic progress and the clamor for more cars and suburbs have slowed for a variety of reasons; namely the collapse of the housing bubble, increasing awareness of climate change, and a growing impulse of people to refuse to submit to economic objectification and the vast iniquities becoming painfully obvious. Not that the numbers don’t shake out in Gehl’s model; his data collected on the use of regenerated and properly planned urban spaces show that pedestrian density is often representative of high rates of building occupancy, employment and property values. All of this is intuitive, fill space with people, and they will be productive,, fill a city with cars, and they will be congested, polluted with a sacrificial slaughter of the public realm to the god of parking.

While Gehl’s message is more holistic than addressing issues of sustainable transit, much of the discussion afterwards focused on the relative hazards of cycling in London. And understandably so, London’s skyrocketing rates of cycling use. Between the introduction of the congestion charging zone, Boris’s implementation of Ken Livingston’s ideas, growing concern over climate change, and the sheer painfulness of commuting by car in a notoriously congested city the explosion of cycling culture has been nothing short of phenomenal. However, it has become painfully obvious that the city has failed to deliver a city wide, well planned cycling infrastructure. Combined with the anachronistic and undemocratic system of pedestrian crossings, increased cycling has resulted in increased friction between cyclists, pedestrians and automobiles. In the best of times, cycling in the city is an adventure, and a survival contest that has spawned a militant hardcore cycling culture touting expensive and aerodynamic spandex kit. To remedy this situation, there were several concrete proposals that should be rolled out at once.

1) Give cycles a six second green light ahead of car traffic. This would avoid the mad scramble inherent in busy starts, with cyclists, scooters, motorbikes and cars all vying for position, reduce the amount of exhaust that cyclists have to churn through (potentially reducing overall emissions as the startline antics of car drivers will be ameliorated), making intersections safer, and reduce friction between cyclists and pedestrians; as has been shown in a wide array of commentary sections lately, many of those who do not cycle do not realize the advantage of cyclists in running red lights.

2) Carry cycle lanes through intersections, and sidewalks through side streets and driveways as has been done to some degree on Roman Road in the East End.

3) Computerize signaling for bike and pedestrian crossings to be more user friendly, displaying the time till crossing is closed and open.

4) Broaden cycle lanes and sidewalks, and protect cycle lanes with rows of parked cars rather than vice versa.

5) Make public transit more cycle friendly to facilitate long distance cycle commuting, this includes making dedicated bike racks on the underground, overground and national rail services, as well as busses. On my way home from Gehl’s lecture the chain broke on my cycle. I was under the impression that off peak one could take their cycle on the tube, or at least bits of it. At Regent Street station the woman working at the tube told me no way, though said at Baker Street I should be able to. I was rejected there as well, even though later looking up TFL’s policy, I was fully in the right; it was the attitude of TFL employees in both cases that was most frustrating, as they were openly antipathic to my cycle.

While the Danes point of view is openly antagonistic to automobiles in the city, it may be that there are ways to balance the convenience of pedestrian, bike, car and public transport for their respective purposes. Making the city more accessible to people at these different scales will form the basis of more sustainable and enjoyable places. Now if only we can get the river’s clean enough to boat and swim in.

TFL Cycling on Public Transport Policy

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Prince's House at the Ideal Home Show

Pure Interactions put on its Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment hat today at the annual Ideal Home Show held at the Earl's Court Expo Center in West London. The Ideal home show is in its 103 year of showcasing homes and homegoods for the discerning consumer. Amidst the tides of visitors and brand name products, the Prince's house stood flanked by the Ideal home Retrofit and a Scandinavian open plan show home by Jorntrahus.

The show homes highlight a focus on sustainability that is growing in England, never mind the rest of the world, as a response to climate change and the litany of environmental and social disorders caused by irresponsible growth. Yet the Prince's house stands out in its approach, one that could be called sustainability through simplicity, whereby good design at the home and neighborhood planning level can go a long way to make places more energy efficient, pleasant and lasting. The use of a high quality building envelope, natural and reclaimed materials and the integration into dense, mixed use, walkable, and well serviced neighborhoods, all contribute to the house's sustainability. A full list of features can be found on the Foundation Website. While sounding a bit soft in its approach, the informative displays behind the house highlight the Foundation's other projects throughout the UK and the world, make it clear that there is a growing technical rigor in our work, in providing location efficiency, measurable cost savings and real environmental, social and health benefits.

While the house is based upon the Foundation's earlier work at the Building Research Establishment site on the 'Natural House,' this particular house will be transported up to the Scottish Ideal Home show before finding a permanent home in one of the Foundation's ongoing projects.